Dental students find inspiration and mentors in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont
Adam Fasoli’s Middlebury, Vermont dental practice unexpectedly faced a distressing challenge in July 2021: One of the dental hygienists had to take time off when her child was injured in a swimming accident. Faced with a staffing shortage, Fasoli, D10, navigated Middlebury Dental Group’s small team, reshuffling patient care while helping a colleague in crisis. It’s the kind of thing that can happen to any workplace at any time.
That particular week, though, Tufts dental student Demetrius Flood, D24, was shadowing Fasoli as part of Tufts’ Northern New England Dental Student Mentorship Program. Watching Fasoli’s leadership in a real-time practice-management dilemma was something Flood couldn’t have witnessed at school. While unfortunate, it was one aspect of the experiential learning that Tufts University School of Dental Medicine Associate Professor Cynthia Yered envisioned when she launched the mentorship program, which pairs rising second-year dental students with practicing dentists, mostly Tufts alumni, in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Yered, D90, is director of the dental school’s Community Service Learning Externship program and deputy director of its Global Community Service Learning program. She says the Northern New England mentorships grew from seeing students’ love of hands-on learning and the value students derive from mentoring. “I realized the benefits of students learning about diverse communities and patients, and I thought it would be helpful if they could start that learning early on,” Yered says.
The mentorship program focuses on rural northern New England to help address the dentist and dental specialist shortage in the region. Yered hopes that experiencing the rhythms and people of a rural practice might encourage dental students to seek work beyond urban hubs.
Last year’s pilot drew three students to two dental practices, including Fasoli’s. The pilot ran without any funding, limiting the number of participants to those who could fund their own housing and transportation. This year’s participants didn’t have to pay their own way, thanks to a $50,000 gift from Northeast Delta Dental, which Fasoli, a trustee of the organization, facilitated. The gift funded 14 students’ participation in the program with six dentists, visiting their practices for anywhere from one to four weeks, for a total of 24 weeks of mentorship.
Whether one week or four, that time has proven well spent, Yered says; it helps to reinvigorate dental students after their intense first year. “The dental curriculum is very rigorous and it’s very stressful,” she says.
Flood said the experience opened his eyes to rural living. “It wasn’t barren,” says Flood, who grew up near Sacramento, California. “I was a little bit surprised; it was very diverse.”
And while his time at Fasoli’s practice wasn’t as hands-on as he had imagined, Flood is grateful that he spent a week shadowing the Middlebury general dentist. Shadowing allowed him to observe Fasoli’s work closely and ask questions. Fasoli answered these generously, Flood says. As he saw dentistry play out in a practice setting, Flood realized that in dental school, he’s learning theory and techniques for ideal scenarios, and that his work will require more creativity and problem-solving. “Ultimately, we’re treating real-life patients,” he says. “You have to work with what you’ve got; there is a wide range of what is clinically acceptable.”
Yered hopes to make the mentorship program accessible to more students and to more rural areas in need of dentists. “I think the more we get the word out there about students’ great experiences, the program will get bigger, so we will need more volunteers to host these students,” she says.
For his part, Fasoli was impressed by Flood’s openness to rural Vermont and to immersing himself in the experience. “For him to come into a busy, vibrant practice—he hadn’t seen anything like this,” Fasoli says. “I think it was really inspiring.”
The mentorship program impressed Fasoli and his partner enough that they hosted three students this July. “It’s fun,” Fasoli says. “I love how they call it a mentorship program, because it creates a bond.”
Flood also feels that bond; he considers Fasoli a mentor after one week at his practice–a tough week for the Middlebury team, and one that underscored for Flood that in the future, he and his classmates “will have staff and a team to care for and to be a resource to, to be really supportive of,” he says.